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April 21, 2011

On Earth Day, Bee Green

Bees are tiny, utterly essential, and rapidly disappearing

  • Scientists fear the rusty-patched bumblebee will become extinct in the United States. Johanna James-Heinz

  • Bees take pollen and nectar from flowers to feed their young. David Inouye, PhD

  • Bees make it possible for flowering plants to reproduce by depositing pollen from one flower into another. David Cappaert

by Tanya Mulford

On Earth Day, we tend to look at the big picture: How is the planet doing? What can I do to help the environment? But when we focus on the wider world, we can miss something tiny, something that can make all the difference.

Like bees. Tiny is, in fact, part of bees' problem: They’re both fragile and easy to overlook. What we could miss by overlooking bees, though, is that they play a huge role in keeping our world alive. And they’re in big trouble.

Take away bees, and things fall apart.

The alarms about colony collapse—or the name for the mass, mysterious disappearance of bees worldwide—have been sounding for years. Scientists and beekeepers first noticed it in North American and Europe, and the crisis has since spread to Africa and Asia.

The death of these small creatures makes visible how vulnerable our world is: Take away bees, and things fall apart.

As bees vanish, it becomes clear that they have been essential to the survival of thousands of plant species all along. Around 70 percent of plants that flower (think lots of trees, fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans, herbs, even cotton) rely on pollinators such as bees. Someone has to take the pollen from one flower to another, or there won’t be any seeds. Bees do most of that pollinating.

Give bees a home»  Garden for bees»

How they pollinate is beautifully simple: Alighting on a flower, a bee gathers pollen to feed offspring; traveling to the next flower, the bee deposits a bit of that pollen. That’s it. But so much hinges on it.

What else depends on bees? Animals, like us. A recent UN report says that 71 of the 100 crops that supply 90 percent of the world’s food are pollinated by bees. In Europe there are 4,000 vegetable varieties that exist because of bees. That’s a lot of numbers. What they mean is that we (and other animals) would starve without bees.

So it’s all the crazier that we’re part of the reason bees are dying. We develop land, which destroys bees’ habitat and food supply. We use pesticides, which poisons them. The non-native bees we put in industrial hives (more than 2 million bee colonies are trucked across the U.S. every year) bring disease and parasites to native bees.

A spokesman for the UN recently said that the plight of bees brought into question “whether nature can continue to provide the services as it has been doing for thousands or millions of years in the face of acute environmental change" brought about by humans.

On Earth Day, when we think about what we can do to help our planet, let’s start by helping this fragile—but necessary—animal.

What bees need most from us is food and shelter that are free of poisons and disease. So try one of these things:

  • Devote a section of your yard or garden to bees
  • Buy or build a bee home.
  • Make sure that your lawn, parks, and other green spaces are free of pesticides.

Small is big again. Bee part of the change.

Tanya Mulford is a web editor for The Humane Society of the United States.

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